THROUGH THE WOODS: Death of a house

HALLOWEEN GOT ME THINKING about departed spirits. This is probably a strange topic since technically a house is made of dead wood, stone, bricks and other non-living things. However, in our mind and spirit a house can be a living thing because it is filled with memories and history and marked by the people who tended it while living out their lives. Our family home, my parents’ Donald and Marion Kern’s house, was where I grew up and spent a large part of 60 years of my life. It was an old 1755 farmhouse which was the hub of our farm. As we grew up, we heard about how the Widow Tracy, a first inhabitant, was allowed to live out her days there after Mr. Tracy died. My father was a descendant of the Tracy family. Just post-Civil War my Great-great Grandfather George Kern bought the farm, passed it to his son William, then to my Grandfather Frank, then to my father Donald.

My father lived there until his death in 1998. My mother lived for another five years, then it came to me and my 3 siblings. Since none of us intended to farm, it was sold. The poor old house went through 10 years of vandalism and neglect until it was recently torn down.

That was a sad time as I saw my mother’s curtains flapping out through broken windows, and then walls and a chimney came down. Shrubs that were generations old were ripped out and dumpsters filled with debris. The workmen wondered who I was because I frequently stopped by to watch, so I introduced myself. It was a mixture of many emotions through those days. I was curious to see the structure and how it was built.

I knew the beams were rough-hewn and some still had their bark. The original, oldest part of the house was a primitive, small, two-story structure on a field stone foundation with a dirt cellar floor. It was not a very deep cellar, and you had to stoop down to enter from outside. The first floor was held up by several posts worn smooth from many hands grasping them until the bark wore off. Whenever there was a heavy rain, the water flowed through and out the cellar door. In April we referred to it as the spring flush as all sorts of things were carried out onto the lawn.

Sometimes I watched the demolition and wondered what past generations would think of the disregard of their hard labor. There was one small bedroom of the house which I refused to sleep in when I was young. I don’t know if it was a stage in my development or what, but I was afraid to be in it. When I was in my twenties, we had a guest stay in this room and he left it during the night because he felt that someone was in there watching him, and he was truly terrified. It confirmed how I felt about it and we wondered if the room really was haunted.

There were a good 200+ years of births and deaths that could have accounted for it, if you were inclined to believe such things. Mostly we laughed it off. That room was one of the last to go. I wondered if there were spirits in the house, and would they fly out as the last walls fell, and then, where would they go? The barn is still standing and is newly repaired and painted red again, so maybe this would be their refuge. So far, none have turned up at my new house half a mile up the road. The old cellar is filled in and leveled off, and the site is still ringed by the trees that were my 2nd, 3rd, 4th… white pine sapling Christmas trees. The oldest is now 73 years old and only outranked by two ancient maples. I pass them several times a week and sometimes stop to see how everyone is doing. There was no Dorothy Perkins rose climbing over the porch this year, but my mother’s flowers are still popping up in the overgrown lawns and on the hillside. My mother said her mother-in-law hated the old house so she would be happy it is gone.

I love my beautiful new home with all the modern comforts, but there are things it doesn’t have. No squirrels run over the ceilings at night. The smell of centuries of wood fires and closets of hanging cob smoked hams are absent. Nothing creaks or groans, the basement is dry, and I must open doors and windows to air out the house because there are no drafts. I still miss the old house though, and if there are any happy spirits of my ancestors hiding out in the barn, they are welcome to come up to visit me.

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